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by Kamal Prashar

Campsfield. A charming name for a part of the Oxfordshire countryside, amid the rolling hills of England and a stones throw from the ancient University. Campsfield. The name of the Immigration detention centre that has been the centre of controversy and protest since it opened.

Surrounded by a 20 foot tall metal fence the residents of the centre are all asylum seekers detained while their applications are processed. They are all seeking a new life in this country and away from the persecutions that they may have endured in their own country. In a petition that they recently sent to the Home Office Immigration department they tried to get across the atmosphere and conditions under which they are forced to live. 'We don't understand why we are treated this way...They make us feel guilty doing nothing and taking the punishment.' The 'they' referred to are the officers from Group 4 who run the facility whilst the punishment that the detainees were complaining of arose in the aftermath of a riot at the centre.

Life in Campsfield is grim. It is true that some may say that it is better than the treatment the detainees would get if they were back in their own country but that is not a criteria to judge against. Confined to their rooms from 10:30pm to 7:00am they have few basic rights. One half are kept in their rooms whilst the other half eat and if they want to go to toilet then they have to ask permission. Earlier this year the Liberal Democrat MP Emma Nicholson was refused the opportunity to enter the centre to talk to the detainees. The reason? Former Prisons Minister, Anne Widdicombe said that detainees had become very noisy and there had been a rapid escalation of tension after Ms Nicholson asked the women if they had been raped. A month later there was a rooftop protest by the detainees in the hope that the new Labour government would take notice. Admittedly, it is true that Jack Straw has set in motion a review of the Asylum and Immigration procedures but reviews are known to take months to complete and the situation is critical right now.

There is a backlog of 50,000 people awaiting decisions on their status in this country. Mike O'Brien the immigration minister, who has admitted that he has inherited a very difficult situation, says 'We are determined that no refugee should be left destitute ... and as part of our comprehensive spending review we are examining the way in which asylum seekers are assisted and supported.

One way to do this would be to look at the way that asylum seekers in this country are denied the chance to call lawyers or friends as a punishment for taking action about the abominable conditions in which they are housed. Another would be to repeal the pernicious Social Security (Persons from Abroad) Miscellaneous Amendment Regulations 1996 which Social Security minister Peter Lilley used to deny Asylum Seekers the chance to claim income support.

Even the Home Office's own research has shown that those who gain refugee status often come with professional and economic skills to benefit the country. This is the same Home Office that in the past has shipped back so-called bogus Asylum Seekers to their own country only for them to disappear without a trace once they arrive.

In opposition the Labour party was on the side of the detainees, now they are in power they should show what they meant, they should come out, as Paddy Ashdown said he would, and repeal the Immigration and Asylum Act.

Campsfield is just one of the places that detainees are sent to. With it's clinging on to the free market ideals promoted by Thatcher and continued by Major it is hoped that such a place will not be continued by Blair. Asylum seekers, in their own words are 'here to be protected by the British and not to be punished.' By locking them away we do just that, by housing them on ships and other floating accommodation we do the same thing. They wish to be a part of the society that they feel will protect them so why not let them live in that society where they can be useful and feel useful.

It is said that a civilised nation is judged by the way it treats those who flee less civilised regimes. If that were the criteria to be applied in this case then this country has a long way to go.

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